Page last updated at 14:46 GMT, Tuesday, 12 February 2008

Volga road trip: Your questions answered

BBC's Rupert Wingfield-Hayes and Volga car

The BBC's Rupert Wingfield-Hayes has been travelling in a Volga car along the Volga river to take a snapshot of life in Vladimir Putin's Russia, as the presidential election looms.

Here he answers some of your questions about the trip.

I travelled the same route from Nizhny Novgorod to Volgograd in 2004. It is true that Russia's infrastructure is in poor shape, particularly outside the major cities, but I think the picture you portray is misleading as you fail to take into account the fact that Russia is still recovering from its disastrous experiment with Communism. What's your response?
Paul DeWitt, Washington, DC, USA

You are absolutely right that Russia's poor road infrastructure is a legacy of communist central planning, which emphasised the development of railways and put little priority on roads.

In the worker's paradise there was no real place for the private car, but those days are long gone and Russia is now taking to the road in a big way.

It's now the second biggest car market in Europe. On our trip we also saw a huge amount of freight being moved by road, much of it pulled by huge rigs imported from the US.

However, so far very little has been done to bring road infrastructure into the 21st Century. Even the highway between Russia's two biggest cities, Moscow and St Petersburg, is mainly still only two lanes wide.

I would make the comparison with China in the early 1990s - when I first visited there virtually wasn't a single kilometre of motorway. But in the last 10 years the Chinese have built tens of thousands of kilometres of multi-lane highways, linking all the major cities.

It has been an important driver in spreading economic growth across China, just as the interstate was in the US.

There are car and aircraft plants and many other manufacturing centres along the Volga valley. I was surprised to see that eight years into the Putin presidency, and with oil and gas revenues filling the government coffers, there is still so little being spent on upgrading Russia's roads.

You seem to imply in your pieces that President Putin is the reason for all the problems in Russia. Is this true?
Kustaa Finn, Reykjavik, Iceland

Absolutely not, Kustaa. Mr Putin has had a lot to deal with as president.

Most Russians would credit him with doing a reasonably good job. His continuing popularity here is not for nothing.

Map of Volga trip

Russians remember the 1990s as a decade of disaster, when Russia lost an empire - the USSR - and at home was plunged into chaos and gangsterism.

Today Russia is undoubtedly more stable and economically far more prosperous. But there is also no doubt that Mr Putin has been lucky.

He came to power with oil prices down below $20 a barrel. Now they are closer to $100.

The question then is what has Mr Putin done with his eight years in office, and the hundreds of billions in revenue that have flowed into his coffers?

There the record is, I think, less clear. There is also a huge question mark over Mr Putin's political legacy.

The 1990s may have been chaotic, but for the first time ever Russians enjoyed a real sense of freedom.

Today some of those freedoms have begun to disappear again, and for that Mr Putin and his friends in the Kremlin are absolutely responsible.

I was born in Volgograd and lived there for 19 years. I have to say you're right in your description of people's attitudes towards politics. It seems people have lost interest in the news and elections altogether. Why is that?
Julia Bushueva, Ruston, LA, USA

There is tremendous apathy about news and politics in Russian today.

I think in part it comes from a sense of fatigue and relief that the rollercoaster chaos of the 1990s is over.

Many Russians I have met, particularly the older ones, speak wistfully of the old days of the Soviet Union, and even of Joseph Stalin.

Many people seem to yearn for a strong figure who will sort out all their problems.

That is part of the attraction of Mr Putin. But there is also, sadly, a growing feeling that, once again, individual voices don't count.

In Saratov I met a middle-aged man sitting out on the Volga ice-fishing. I asked him who he would vote for in the presidential election.

He told me he wouldn't bother. He was absolutely certain that the outcome of the election had already been decided, regardless of what he, or anybody else, might do on election day.

With the Russian media heavily censored and the government tightly controlled, by what means could candidates with alternative economic plans and political agendas become known to enough Russians to have an actual chance of competing against Putin's party in the election?
Justin Andrews, Chicago, USA

Justin, I think the short answer is no way.

There is still a lot of media in Russia that is not under government control. The internet is not censored, and there are still independent radio stations and newspapers highly critical of Mr Putin's party.

But they are read and listened to by a small minority. The vast majority get their news from TV, and under Mr Putin the Kremlin has set about systematically to retake control of all the major television stations, either directly or through ownership by Kremlin allies.

There is, however, an even more serious obstacle to opposition politicians in Russia today: the electoral law.

It is now all but impossible for an independent to become a candidate in the presidential election. Any candidate must gather two million signatures supporting his or her nomination.

Those signatures must come, in equal proportion, from across at least 80% of Russia's regions.

That means, to be successful, a candidate must already have a national profile and a large following across the whole of this vast country, before the campaign even begins.

If Russia's population is shrinking by 700,000 a year why are Russia's politicians not encouraging immigration? I'm sure that encouraging immigrants from the developing world and from Asia's booming economies of India and China would help boost Russia's economy and stop the population from falling.
James Wild, London, UK

A very interesting question and one that gets to the heart of the conundrum facing Russia.

Russia has a vast territory, but a shrinking number of people to fill it. Russian men die younger than any other Europeans (average 58 years) and Russian women on average have just 1.5 children, far below replacement level.

In addition young Russians are fleeing the countryside, and from Siberia.

The reality is that a massive inward migration is already under way from the Caucasus, Central Asia and China.

Since the end of the Soviet Union upwards of 10 million people from the former Soviet republics have poured into Russia - upper estimates put it at 25 million.

Russia's economy simply would not function without them.

Go to any construction site in Moscow, look at the street cleaners, office cleaners, market traders, taxi driver, truck driver, you name it, they are all immigrants.

The problem for politicians is that there is still high unemployment among unskilled and uneducated Russians, and that is leading to a growing backlash against immigrants.

The level of racism in Russia can be quite shocking. Normally polite Muscovites will openly refer to people from the Caucasus in scornful, derogatory terms.

Much more worryingly, there is a large and growing neo-Nazi movement in Russia which openly advocates the expulsion of all non-white foreigners.

Violence against minority groups, including murder, is on the rise.

I have only met one Russian politician who openly advocates a pro-immigration policy. He is from the liberal leaning SBS party, and he has lost his seat in parliament.

We outside of Russia hear much about criminal elements being ever- present throughout the vast country, such as robberies or mafia presence. Did you encounter any of this along the way?
Karthick, Mumbai, India

The impression of Russia as a land of lawlessness and gangsters stems largely from the 1990s and has, by and large, disappeared.

I'm not saying there aren't gangsters in Russia anymore, but the open street battles, assassinations and general banditry that were common in the 1990s have pretty much gone.

On my trip, the biggest worry was the police, who have a tendency to demand large bribes rather than issue traffic tickets!

Have you seen many buildings - such as community centres, hospitals, apartment buildings - that were built after 1990, or are they all from the Soviet era?
Dimitar, Mississauga, Canada

Dimitar, there is a huge construction boom going on in Russia, and not just in big cities like Moscow.

Everywhere I went I saw building sites. Most of this new construction is commercial property - offices, shopping malls, entertainment centres and apartment buildings.

What I was really struck by is the proliferation of the out-of-town shopping malls.

This is something I have also seen in China and India. Russians too are taking to consumerism with relish.

There are now Ikea stores all over Russia, and a host of other superstores, mega-malls and DIY stores. Russians love DIY.

There was less evidence of new public buildings being built.

Who owns or controls the agricultural land in present-day Russia?
Jan Miszewski, Clear Lake, Iowa, USA

Good question Jan. The collapse of agriculture in Russia is a really big issue.

My understanding is that all agricultural land still belongs to the state, but you can buy long-term leases.

Quite a lot of land has been privatised, but a huge amount still remains in the hands of the old state farms.

Many of the villages I visited on this trip had a really tragic appearance. Most of the farm buildings were completely derelict. Villagers told me there were simply no jobs on the farms anymore.

Why aren't villagers leasing land and starting up their own small farms? I think the answer is that most of them simply don't know how.

They don't have the ability to borrow money. They don't have the experience of running a private farm.

On a previous trip to the Urals I met a Russian businessman who had bought the lease on 1,000 hectares of agricultural land.

He told me he had found it impossible to get any Russians to come and farm the land for him.

He thought 70 years of communism was to blame, that Russians had lost the knowledge and the desire to farm the land. In the end he'd leased the land out to a group of Chinese farmers.

Do you have any plans to travel through other former Soviet states, such as Ukraine, after this trip to compare the differences between them?
Alexander, Donetsk, Ukraine

I would very much like to do more travelling in other former Soviet states.

I have not been to Ukraine, but can imagine that it must be facing many of the same economic and social challenges that Russia has to deal with.

It would be really interesting to see how, for example, Ukraine is reforming its agricultural economy, and whether it is working any better than in Russia.

Having read your road trip diary, I must say I got a negative impression of what you've experienced. Have you managed to find anything particularly positive or anything you particularly liked along the way?
Julia Egortseva, Moscow, Russia

Julia, I'm really sorry if I come across as being negative about Russia. I really enjoyed my trip, saw some wonderful places and met some wonderful people.

For me, what really stood out was the Russian countryside.

In Moscow, as you know, it has been another grey and wet winter. But down on the Volga it is a real Russian winter, bitingly cold and beautifully sunny.

In that sort of weather the Russian countryside is breathtaking. I got to sit in the cockpit of a Tu-144 supersonic airliner at a museum, and went ice-skating with a family of six in Ulyanovsk.

In Engels I spent a great evening with a Russian bomber pilot and his family. When I was a child such a thing would have been unthinkable.

Finally in Volgograd I got to interview two fabulous 85-year-old veterans of the Battle of Stalingrad.

However, the trip was never supposed to be a pleasure cruise. We set out to try and look at some of the major problems confronting Russia, and that may be why I came across as sounding rather negative.

It is, I suppose, in the nature of journalists to look for the dark underbelly.

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